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Clark v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

March 20, 2018

CHRISTINA CLARK, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          NANNETTE A. BAKER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         This is an action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying Christina Clark's application for supplemental security income under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 416 et seq. Clark alleged disability due to depression. (Tr. 146.) The parties have consented to the exercise of authority by the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). [Doc. 8.] The Court has reviewed the parties' briefs and the entire administrative record, including the hearing transcripts and the medical evidence. The Court heard oral argument in this matter on March 8, 2018. Because the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence, the Court will reverse and remand this action for further proceedings.

         I.Issue for Review

         Clark presents one issue for review. She asserts that the administrative law judge's (“ALJ”) residual functional capacity (“RFC”) determination was not supported by substantial evidence, because the ALJ did not properly weigh the medical opinions of consultative examiner Dr. Thomas Spencer and her treating doctor Dr. Melissa Jones. The Commissioner asserts that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole and should be affirmed.

         II. Standard of Review

         The Social Security Act defines disability as an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 416(i)(1)(A).

         The standard of review is narrow. Pearsall v. Massanari, 274 F.3d 1211, 1217 (8th Cir. 2001). This Court reviews decisions of the ALJ to determine whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance, but enough that a reasonable mind would find adequate support for the ALJ's decision. Smith v. Shalala, 31 F.3d 715, 717 (8th Cir. 1994). The court determines whether evidence is substantial by considering evidence that detracts from the Commissioner's decision as well as evidence that supports it. Cox v. Barnhart, 471 F.3d 902, 906 (8th Cir. 2006). The Court may not reverse just because substantial evidence exists that would support a contrary outcome or because the Court would have decided the case differently. Id. If, after reviewing the record as a whole, the Court finds it possible to draw two inconsistent positions from the evidence and one of those positions represents the Commissioner's finding, the Commissioner's decision must be affirmed. Masterson v. Barnhart, 363 F.3d 731, 736 (8th Cir. 2004). The Court must affirm the Commissioner's decision so long as it conforms to the law and is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. Collins ex rel. Williams v. Barnhart, 335 F.3d 726, 729 (8th Cir. 2003).

         III. Discussion

         Clark contends that the ALJ's RFC determination and disability determination are not supported by substantial evidence, because the ALJ improperly discounted the opinion of the consultative examiner and her treating physician. The RFC is defined as what the claimant can do despite his or her limitations, and includes an assessment of physical abilities and mental impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a). The RFC is a function-by-function assessment of an individual's ability to do work related activities on a regular and continuing basis.[1] SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1 (July 2, 1996). It is the ALJ's responsibility to determine the claimant's RFC based on all relevant evidence, including medical records, observations of treating physicians and the claimant's own descriptions of his limitations. Pearsall, 274 F.3d at 1217. An RFC determination made by an ALJ will be upheld if it is supported by substantial evidence in the record. See Cox, 471 F.3d at 907.

         In this case, the ALJ found that Clark had the severe impairments of “anxiety/depression/bipolar disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, and obesity.” (Tr. 18.) He found that she had the RFC to perform the full range of sedentary work with the following non-exertional limitations: no exposure to work hazards; limited to simple unskilled work with no contact with the general public and only occasional contact with co-workers and supervisors. (Tr. 20.) In formulating the RFC, the ALJ reviewed several medical opinions regarding Clark's mental health impairments. Medical opinions are statements from physicians and psychologists or other acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of a claimant's impairments, including symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis, and what the claimant can still do despite impairments and physical or mental restrictions. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(a)(2)[2]. All medical opinions, regardless of the source, are weighed based on (1) whether the provider examined the claimant; (2) whether the provider is a treating source; (3) length of treatment relationship and frequency of examination, including nature and extent of the treatment relationship; (4) supportability of opinion with medical signs, laboratory findings, and explanation; (5) consistency with the record as a whole; (6) specialization; and (7) other factors which tend to support or contradict the opinion. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c).

         Dr. Spencer, a state agency psychologist, and Dr. Jones, Clark's treating physician both prepared written medical opinions regarding Clark's mental health. (Tr. 267-70, 677-78.) The ALJ gave partial weight to Dr. Spencer's opinion and little weight to Dr. Jones' opinion. The Court will now address the ALJ's evaluation of each opinion.

         A. Dr. Spencer

         Dr. Spencer, a licensed psychologist, was hired by the Social Security Administration to conduct a psychological examination of Clark. The evaluation took place on March 6, 2014. (Tr. 267-270.) Dr. Spencer reported that Clark's mental status examination indicated that she had fair eye contact, mildly pressured and loud speech, and she fidgeted. (Tr. 269). He noted that she cooperated and was a decent historian. (Tr. 269.) Her insight and judgment were fairly intact. (Tr. 269.) He described her as anxious. (Tr. 269.) During the examination, she denied suicidal and homicidal thoughts and was alert to person, time, place, and event. (Tr. 269.) He did not observe her responding to internal stimuli and no delusional beliefs were elicited. (Tr. 269.) He described her flow of thought as intact and relevant. (Tr. 269.) Dr. Spencer stated that based on her vocabulary, grammar, and general fund of knowledge, Clark appeared to be low average to average intelligence. (Tr. 269.) Dr. Spencer diagnosed Clark with generalized anxiety disorder and depressive disorder not otherwise specified. (Tr. 269.) He opined that she retained the ability to understand and remember simple to moderately complex instructions and the ability to engage in and persist with simple moderately complex tasks. (Tr. 270.) He also opined that she demonstrated mild to moderate impairment in her ability to interact socially and in her ability to adapt to changes in the workplace. (Tr. 270.)

         “State agency medical and psychological consultants and other program physicians, psychologists, and other medical specialists are highly qualified physicians, psychologists, and other medical specialists who are also experts in Social Security disability evaluation.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(e)(2)(i). “Therefore, administrative law judges must consider findings and other opinions of State agency medical and psychological consultants and other program physicians, psychologists, and other medical specialists as opinion evidence, except for the ultimate determination about whether a claimant is disabled.” Id. Unless the claimant's treating source is given controlling weight, the administrative law judge must explain the weight given to the opinions of a ...


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